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Steele’s The Conscious Lovers and Goldsmith’s She Stoops to Conquer .
A Question of Sentiment.
The period from 1700 to 1790 is often referred to as the Age of Sentimentality. Steele (1672-1729), one of the most popular and controversial figures of this time, not only gained reputation as a dramatist, but also as a co-founder (with Addison) of the highly popular periodical The Spectator, in which questions of manners and social conduct were discussed, as well as moral issues and literature. His comedy The Conscious Lovers, which appeared at stage for the first time in 1722 and remained very popular throughout the following decades, was seen as a model for a new type of comedy, called ‘Sentimental Comedy’.
Unlike Steele, who is one of the most prominent representative of the early decades of Sentimentality, Goldsmith (1730-1774) celebrated his finest literary success at the end of the sentimental period. When his comedy She Stoops to Conquer gained immediate appraisal on stage in 1773, the Age of Sentimentality already was in decline. How far Goldsmith and his comedy can be regarded as ‘sentimental’ or ‘anti-sentimental’ will be one question I would like to deal with in my essay.
The two authors, or rather their most important plays, are very interesting for they reflect, to some extent, the beginning and the end of Sentimentality and therefore provide us with an interesting insight into society, or rather the literary conception of society of that time.
Steele’s comedy The Conscious Lovers became one of the most influential and most successful plays of the 18th century and for fifty years (until the 1770-ies) remained one of the most frequently performed comedies at Drury Lane and Covent Garden. Steele had written the comedy as a response to Restoration comedies like those of Etherege (1636-1692; She Would If She Could, The Man of Mode), Congreve (1670-1729; The Old Bachelor, Love for Love, The Way of the World), or Wycherley (1640-1716; The Country Wife, The Plain Dealer), which by many critics were considered as immoral. These writers were criticised for making libertines their successful heroes and for using explicit language and crude jokes. One of the sharpest critics was Jeremy Collier, who believed that moral instruction should be the most important function of a drama, and that virtuous characters and their decent behaviour in the play should serve as a model for the audience.
Steele was amongst those critics who attacked earlier Restoration writers and, in fact, his conception of his own comedy is in many ways very different from Etherege’s, Congreve’s or Wycherley’s. In the preface of The Conscious Lovers Steele’s introduces his new type of comedy, which seems to be more serious and emotionally more involving than other comedies of the same time.
Realising that some people would find the content and certain aspects of his comedy, like Indiana’s tragic life, or Bevil’s quarrel with his friend, which almost leads to a duel, not suitable for a comedy, Steele argues for his play, stating that ‘any thing that has its Foundation in Happiness and Success, must be allow’d to be the Object of Comedy’. His aim is not to make his audience laugh, but to get them involved in the characters’ lives on stage, to feel with them and to weep for them. In his comedy he wants ‘to introduce a Joy too exquisite for Laughter’. The audience is invited not to hold back their tears, for they flow ‘from Reason and good sense’. And, ‘Men should not be laugh’d at for weeping’, for this seems most natural in regard of ‘the Softness of the Heart’.
With Bevil Junior, Steele introduces an exemplary hero. He is a virtuous and benevolent man. As a son of Sir Bevil he is truly respectful. His respect for his father even goes so far that he would marry Lucinda, whom he is not in love with but who was chosen by Sir Bevil and her father Mr Sealand to be his wife. Although Bevil Junior seems to be quite worried about the arranged marriage, because he is in love with another woman, Indiana, and his best friend Myrtle is in fact the one, who really loves Lucinda, he would never burden his father’s mind with his own sorrows. And even when his father, who shows a lot of care for his son, suspects his son not to be entirely happy about this marriage and asks him whether he will ‘really marry her’, Bevil Junior evades the question and replies:
‘Did I ever disobey any command of yours, Sir? nay, any inclination that I saw you bent upon?’
 Strum Kenny, S., The Plays of Richard Steele (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1971).
 Collier, J., A Short View of the Immorality, and Profaneness of the English Stage (London: 1698).
 Steele, R., The Conscious Lovers, in The Beggar’s Opera and Other 18th Century Plays (London: Everyman 1995), 68.
 Steele, 68.
 Steele, 85.
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